Karel Teige’s “Poetism” (1924)
Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Büchler.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The nineteenth century, lacking a discrete style, gave birth to -isms, those somewhat more insouciant and noncommittal substitutes for styles. Today, there is no ruling “ism.” After Cubism, we have witnessed the rivalry of numerous artistic schools and beliefs. With no rules to guide it, art, individualized to the extreme, has broken up into groups called avant-gardes. There is no -ism, only “new art” or the “latest art” that often harbors illusions as old as the world itself and calls them universal truths. The degeneration of -isms is nothing but a symptom of the evident degeneration of the existing kinds of art.
Yet a new style is being born, and together with it a new art that has ceased to be art: free of traditional prejudice, it allows for every promising hypothesis, sympathizes with experimentation; and its ways are as responsive, its sources as rich and abundant, as those of life itself.
And it is likely that it will be those less professional, less literary-minded spirits, yet all the more lively and cheerful for it, who will be, from now on, concerned with this new art. In its blossoming you will discover the intoxicating aroma of life, and that alone will make you forget the problematics of art.
Professionalism in art cannot continue. If the new art, and that which we shall call Poetism, is an art of life, an art of living and enjoying, it must become, eventually, a natural part of everyday life, as delightful and accessible as sport, love, wine, and all manner of other delectations. It cannot be a profession; rather, it will become a universal need. No individual life, that is, a life lived morally, with smiles, happiness, love, and dignity, will be able to do without it. The notion of a professional artist is an error and today, to some extent, an anomaly. The Paris Olympics of 1924 did not admit any professional sports clubs. Why should we not reject just as resolutely the professional guilds of painting, writing, modeling, and chiseling businessmen? An artwork is not a commodity for commercial speculation, and it cannot be the subject of stilted academic debates. It is essentially a gift, a game with no constraints and no consequences.
The fresh, abundant, and exquisite beauty of the world is the daughter of real life. She is not a child of aesthetic speculation, [n]or a product of the romantic mentality of an artist’s studio, but a simple result of purposeful, disciplined, positive production and the everyday activity of humankind. She will not find a home in cathedrals or galleries, but outside, in the streets, in the architecture of cities, in the refreshing greenery of parks, in the bustle of seaports, and in the heat of industry feeding our primary needs. She does not work according to self-prescribed formalist recipes: modern shapes and forms are the outcome of purposeful work; they are being turned out to perfection under the compulsion of purpose and economy. She has embraced the calculations of the engineer and saturated them with poetic vision. In just this way urbanism, the science of designing cities, has provided us with fascinating poetic works, drawn as a blueprint for life and a prospect of days to come, a utopia that shall be achieved in a future that is red. Its products are the engine of plenty and happiness.
The new beauty was bam from constructive work, the basis of modern life. The triumph of the constructive method (disappearance of handicrafts, abolition of decorative art, mass production, norms, and standardization) has been rendered operative exclusively by the principles of a cutting-edge intellectualism, manifested in contemporary technical materialism. Marxism. The constructive principle is thus the condition of the very existence of the modern world. Purism is the aesthetic control of constructive work — nothing more, nothing less.
Flaubert wrote a prophetic sentence: “The art of tomorrow will be impersonal and scientific.” But will it still be art? Today’s architecture, city building, industrial art are all science. This is not artistic creation as a result of gushingly romantic enthusiasm, but simple, intensive, civilizing work. Social technology.
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Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis. As relativists, we are aware of the hidden irrationality overlooked by the scientific system and therefore as yet not sublimated. It is in the interest of life that the calculations of engineers and thinkers be rational. Yet each calculation rationalizes irrationality merely by several decimal points. The calculus of each machine has its pi.
In our time we require a special frame of mind to be able to deal with the psychological contradictions taken to the point of paradoxical extremes. Collective discipline. We are hungry for individual freedom “After six days of work and building of the world, beauty is the seventh day of the soul.” This line by the poet Otokar Bfezina captures the relationship between Poetism and Constructivism. A man who has lived as a working citizen wants to live as a human being, as a poet.
Poetism is not only the opposite but also the necessary complement of Constructivism. It is based on its layout.
Art as Poetism is nonchalant, exuberant, fantastic, playful, nonheroic, and erotic. There is not an iota of romanticism in it. It was born in an atmosphere of cheerful fellowship, in a world that laughs, and who cares if it laughs in tears? Humorous disposition prevails, while pessimism has been openly abandoned. The art of today shifts its emphasis toward enjoyment and the beauty of life, away from musty studies and studios; it points the way leading from nowhere to nowhere, revolving in a circle around a magnificent fragrant park, for it is the path of life. Here, the hours arrive as blossoming roses. Is it a scent? Is it a memory?
Nothing. Nothing but lyrical and visual excitement over the spectacle of the modern world. Nothing but love for life and its events, a passion for modernity, “modernolatry,” to use the expression coined by Umberto Boccioni. Nothing but happiness, love and poetry, heavenly things that cannot be bought for money and that are not important enough for people to kill each other for. Nothing but joy, magic, and everybody’s optimistic faith in the beauty of life. Nothing but the immediate data of sensibility. Nothing but the art of wasting time. Nothing but the melody of the heart. The culture of miraculous enchantment. Poetism wants to turn life into grand entertainment. An eccentric carnival, a harlequinade of emotions and ideas, a series of intoxicating film sequences, a miraculous kaleidoscope. Its muses are kind, tender, and mirthful, their glances as fascinating and impenetrable as a lover’s glance.
Poetism has no philosophical orientation. It would probably confess to a dilettante, pragmatic, tasty and tasteful eclecticism. It is not a worldview — for us, this is Marxism — but an ambiance of life: certainly not the stodgy atmosphere of a study, a library, a museum. It probably speaks only to those who belong to the new world; it has no desire to be understood and perverted by those whose views are outdated, who look back into the past. It harmonizes life’s contrasts and contradictions, and, significantly, for the first time it brings us poetry that needs no words, melody, or rhyme, a poetry already longed for by Whitman.
Poetism is not literature. In medieval times even legal codes and school grammars were written in verse. Tendentious ideological verse with its “contents and plot” is the last surviving remnant of this kind of poetry. The beauty of our poetry has no intentions, no grand phrases, no deep meaning, no apostolic mission. A game of beautiful words, a combination of ideas, a web of images, if necessary without words. It calls for the free mind of a juggler of ideas, who has no intention to apply poetry to rational axioms and contaminate it with ideology; rather than philosophers and pedagogues,  modern poets are clowns, dancers, acrobats, and tourists. The sweetness of artificiality and the spontaneity of feelings. Communication, poem, letter, lovers’ conversation, improvised drinking sprees, chitchat, fantasy and comedy, a quick card game light as air itself, memories, good times when people laugh: a week of colors, lights, and scents.
Poetism is not painting. Painting, having rejected all anecdotal aspects and avoided the dangers of decorativism, has started out on its way toward poetry. As poetry became visual (in the work of Apollinaire and Marinetti and in Birot’s “poetry of the open air” as well as in his films), so painting, having emancipated form and color in cubism, ceased to imitate reality, for it was not able to compete with photojournalism, and instead set out to make poetry by means of optical form. Optical words as devised in the language of flags. Similar to the international system of traffic signs. Abstraction and geometry, a perfect and infallible system that inspires the modern mind. Emancipation from the picture frame, started by Picasso and Braque, has subsequently led to a total suppression of the tableau. The poetic picture is the picture of book illustration, photography, photomontage.
The new poetic language is heraldry: the language of signs. It works with standards. (For example: Au revoir! Bon vent, bonne mer! Adieu! Green light: go! Red light: stop!).
Poetism is not an -ism, at least not in the narrow sense of the word as it is currently understood. For there is no -ism in today’s art. Constructivism is the method of all productive work. Poetism — we repeat — is the art of living in the most beautiful sense of the word, a modern Epicureanism. It offers an aesthetic that is in no way prohibitive or pedantic. Nor does it wish to mold the life of today or tomorrow according to some abstract rules. There is no moral code, except for that created by the friendly relationships of common living, person to person — an amiable, tolerant etiquette. -Ism, after all, is not a very precise word: -isms do not mean what they say, and to explain them literally, almost etymologically and philologically, would be sometimes terribly foolish (as for example in the case of cubism). Poetism and Constructivism are not to be understood in any other way than as a means toward giving a name to a method, a view, a denomination, a simple name (as in the case of socialism, communism, liberalism, etc.).
Poetism is not art, that is, art in its current romantic sense of the word. It is ready to liquidate existing art categories, to establish the reign of pure poetry, exquisite in its multifarious forms, as multifaceted as fire and love. It has film at its disposal (the new cinematography), as well as avionics, radio, technical, optical, and auditory inventions (optophonetics), sport, dance, circus and music hall, places of perpetual improvisation where new inventions are made every day. It corresponds fully to our need for entertainment and activity. It is able to give art its due without overestimating its importance, knowing that it is certainty not more precious than life. Clowns and Dadaists taught us this aesthetic skepticism. Today, we do not assign a place to poetry in books and albums alone. Instruments of enjoyment, sailing boats are modern poems as well.
It is axiomatic that man has invented art, like everything else, for his own pleasure, entertainment, and happiness. A work of art that fails to make us happy and to entertain is dead, even if its author were to be Homer himself. Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, [Vlasta] Burian, a director of fireworks, a champion boxer, an inventive and skillful cook, a record-breaking mountain climber — are they not even greater poets?
Poetism is, above all, a way of life. It is a function of life and at the same time the fulfillment of its purpose. It is the author of general human happiness and well being, unpretentiously peaceful. Happiness is a comfortable home, a roof over one’s head,  but it is also being in love, having a good time, laughing, dancing. It is a noble teacher. Stimulating life. It relieves depression, worries, irritations. It offers spiritual cleansing and moral health.
Life, with its tedium of work and its daily monotony, would be meaningless, an empty shell, without an animating heart, without resilient sensibility, and without poetry. It is poetry that thus becomes the sole purpose of a meaningful life, conscious of itself. Not to understand Poetism is not to understand life!
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Humanity has emerged from the war tired, troubled, bitterly robbed of illusions, unable to feel desire, to love, to lead a new, better life. Poetism (within its limits) wants to cure this moral hangover and psychological shock, as well as the malaise of its aftermath, as exemplified, for example, by the case of expressionism. It grows out of a constant human need, free of pretensions and artistic humbug. Poetism knows that one of the greatest values embraced by mankind is human individuality harnessed to the discipline of the collective fellowship of man, his happiness and the harmony of his inner life. It puts a new face on the historical ideal of happiness. Poetism revises all values, and, at the time of the twilight of all idols, it has appropriated lyrical value as its very own and true golden treasure.
It is essential to live the modern global creed to its fullest. Only a truly modern man is a whole man. Romantic artists are defective individuals. Etre de son temps. For art is the most direct manifestation of the handwriting of life.
Today, the world is controlled by money, by capitalism. Socialism means that the world should be controlled by reason and wisdom, economically, purposefully, usefully.
Constructivism is the operative mechanism of such a control. But reason would cease to be wise if it were to suppress the domain of sensibility in the process of its rule over the world: instead of multiplication, it would bring impoverishment to life, since the only asset important for our happiness is the wealth of our feelings, the infinite realm of our sensibility. And it is here that Poetism intervenes and comes to the rescue in the renewal of our emotional life, our joy, and our imagination. It is by means of these lines that we are for the first time trying to put in words the aims of a movement brought to life by several modern Czech authors. It seems that the time has arrived to define what Poetism really means, especially since this word, which has entered common parlance during the one year of its existence, has often been used as well as abused by critics who often had no idea what it is all about.
Poetism was born as a result of the collaboration of several Devětsil authors and is, above all, a reaction against the ideologically colored poetry ruling the roost in our country. Resistance against romantic aestheticism and traditionalism. Jettisoning of existing “art” fornis. We have set out to explore the possibilities not capable of being satisfied by paintings and poems in film, circus, sport, tourism, and life itself. And so Poetism gave birth to visual poems, poetic puzzles and anecdotes, to lyrical films. The authors of these experiments — Nezval, Seifert, Voskovec, and, with your permission, Teige as well — wish to savor all the fruits of poetry, cut loose from a literature destined for the scrap heap, a poetry of Sunday afternoons, picnics, luminous cafes, intoxicating cocktails, lively boulevards, spa promenades, but also the poetry of silence, night, quiet, and peace.
[Originally published as “Poetismus,” in Host, Vol. 3, No. 9-10 (July 1924)]